Radiohead has made it a habit of releasing a critically acclaimed album and then disappearing deep into the doldrums of their dreary Oxford, England, confines. Blink and it’s easy to miss them streaking across the mainstream music landscape. These sporadic flashes occur about every four years and, as luck should have it, 2011 just so happens to include one of these re-emergences. This past Friday saw Radiohead release their eighth studio album, The King Of Limbs, clogging Twitter and RSS feeds with early reviews, opinions and links to snag the group’s newest material.
Waking up hungover on Friday morning to rush to my Spanish class, I placed my order for the album and let it download while I painfully discussed the merits of Post-Modern Argentine literature. My return greeted me with the new album firmly planted into my “recently added” iTunes file and off I went on the British lads’ latest effort. The album’s runtime is short, only consisting of 37 minutes and eight new tracks–a stark contrast to 2007’s double-disc creative escapade, In Rainbows. Despite its shortness, I wasn’t disappointed as the songs seamlessly transition track after track. The King Of Limbs utilizes the signature glitchy electronic spasms so prominently used by the band on their post-Kid A era albums. Thom’s mournful high-pitched warble floats effortlessly above the myriad of strings, keyboards and crashing drums, giving The King Of Lambs that wistfully beautiful Radiohead ambiance.
However, where In Rainbows pulled upon all of the band’s former sounds with a muscled, arena-rock vivacity, The King Of Limbs sees the band return to the haunting melancholy that dominated its 2003 release, Hail To The Thief. It’s not instantly invigorating upon first listen like Ok, Computer or The Bends, but rather it leaves room for like over repeated listens. The claustrophobic rumblings of “Morning Mr Magpie” create uncomfortable first impressions while Yorke scolds, “You’ve got some nerve coming here.” The grisly titled “Feral” plays just as the name indicates: a schizoid babbling of snare drum, Yorke moans and suppressed angst that’s chaotic as it continues to unravel.
King Of The Limb’s latter half opens into a more intimately harmonious conclusion, diffusing the former half’s pent-up rambunctiousness. “Lotus Flower”–also the album’s first video single–delicately hums and buzzes, while “Give Up the Ghost” sees Yorke channel the muffled soprano that Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon has popularized. However, it’s “Codex” that affirmed my listening experience. The lyrics are blunt and short–“slight of the hand/jump off the edge/into a clear lake…. no one gets hurt/you’ve done nothing wrong/slide your hand”–and the mournful piano pierced me with slow stabs. The song perfectly purges — the musical equivalent of Good Will Hunting’s “It’s not your fault” scene. It’s a cathartic pardon that has resonated with me as I slowly try to come to terms with a failed relationship with a girl. “Codex” grabs hold and excuses the reasons–whatever they might be–for why it never fully came to be.
This uncanny ability of making completely unhindered, subjective mood music relays why Radiohead have remained culturally pertinent over the years. They have shed several layers of sonic skin since Pablo Honey, but it’s how they use every new transformation to transmute that same encompassing listening experience. It would be naive to say that only Radiohead specifically have this power in the music industry to affect with lyrical subjectivity and body-high instrumentals. However, their avant-garde approach to crafting their music and tunes lets the listener take what he/she wants from each song (Is Kid A an album that rails against a society dominated entirely by artificial intelligence or, as Chuck Klosterman believes, is it a song-by-song account of the 9/11 attacks? Is Ok, Computer a nihilistic perception of an increasingly globalized world? And what words are really being murmured on Amnesiac’s “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”?)
The band’s eighth outing is no different and only accentuates the fact with its Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde halves. This music is neither used to push images nor make profits for fat cat music labels. There’s music to be held and viewed as art; the last medium for complete individualized interpretation. So as I absorb The King Of Limbs before attending a musically disparate Big Sean concert, I can’t help but think what this album means. It’s hard to say, but I see glimmers of hope at the end of the album’s tunnel. Although, that’s only one writer’s opinion. The beautiful part is it might not be the definitive perspective, the truest testament to a great album’s impact from a world-class band.
Radiohead’s The King Of Limbs is now available at www.thekingoflimbs.com.